National Geographic

Veiled Driving: Billi Cowgirls

Near Al Qusayr, Saudi Arabia, 25°56'44" N, 36°48'44" E

They were out working the camels. The mother raised her arms as if exhorting a crowd from a mountaintop, hazing big ornery bulls toward a water trough. Hah! she said.

One grown daughter horsed 50-pound bales of alfalfa from the bed of a pickup truck. She wore a flowered smock. The other daughter sat behind the truck’s steering wheel, yanking on her black abaya and gloves as we approached. They were from the Billi tribe. They had just walked their animals eight days south from Duba. They owned some droopy white tents. Indigo shadows pooled under their camels. Their men were away with the sheep.

“You can help yourselves to the water,” the old woman said.

She pointed at a broken-down old tanker truck. She spoke to us from ten paces away and kept that distance. She stood very thin and stiff and straight. Even cloaked, you could tell she was tough. She clutched a 12-inch butcher’s knife behind her back.

“Are you afraid of us?” Ali asked. “Is that why you carry the knife?”

“I’m not afraid,” she said. “I’m just carrying this knife.”

The old woman’s name was Oum Shileweah. Her truck-driving daughter was Ghazal—Gazelle. Women are banned from driving in Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom’s powerful clerics say that granting females such independence would corrupt public morals. But in the desert mobility is survival. Necessity—as well as her father and brothers—have taught Ghazal and thousands of other rural Saudi women like her to work the accelerator. Ghazal’s morals appeared intact. And nobody was going to stop her. Let them try to get past Oum Shileweah.

There are 43 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Ellen Lindow
    November 3, 2013

    There’s always someone telling women what they can and cannot do. But it’s interesting how little difference that makes in everyday lives. I was a child in the sixties and noted the women’s liberation movement while attending a fairly conservative church with my family. There was a definite division of labor by sexes, and women were not allowed any positions of power, but by the age of ten I had already figured out that the women in our community ran the church, the activities and the men in their lives. They were the vital glue that held the church together, no matter who was officially in power. I expect despite headlines, and even though I admit there are horrible abuses, in most average lives, even in repressive societies, women go about their lives doing what is needed despite restrictions placed on them by the authorities.

    • Paul Salopek
      November 7, 2013

      Thanks for this insight, Ellen.

  2. Eva Maria Huschka
    November 3, 2013

    Usually modernization spreads from the cities to the country. It looks like here we have modernization (women’s rights) spread from the country to the city. Good luck!

    • Paul Salopek
      November 7, 2013

      The Bedouin women would likely be startled to learn that they were admired abroad as agents of “modernization.” They are conservative people, doing their job as pastoralists—a hard life in a harsh corner of the world. The Saudi men I’ve talked to, meanwhile, seem to find women driving in the desert tolerable—apparently because they believe that there are fewer unrelated males around to either sexually harass or tempt the morals of female motorists. What strikes me in this fraught debate—as an outsider passing through on foot—is that Westerners who are upset by the ban on female driving in Saudi Arabia are often themselves complicit in it through their own unfettered driving habits: It is the torrent of petroleum revenue to the Kingdom that funds policies that keep half the Saudi population economically inactive.

  3. Shirley G
    November 3, 2013

    Another story, another picture to add to our learning …..thank you!

  4. Can’t tell (Scared SAUDI!!)
    November 5, 2013

    unfortunately, even for ladies right to drive has to go for ages of arguments only to find out…Yes, they deserve this basic right light years ago!!

    Q to the reader: How do you feel for living in GOLDen CAGE?! That’s how I feel…. USA: we have a problem! We need you to SOS!

  5. Aya
    November 5, 2013

    Why are you walking around the whole world?!!?!?????

  6. Aya
    November 5, 2013

    Why are you walking around the whole world?!!?!?????

    • Paul Salopek
      November 7, 2013

      To get to the other side, Aya.

  7. Linda Hoernke
    November 6, 2013

    I love this story. Women are what holds families and cultures together. They are strong and do what they can to survive.

  8. Al Beckley
    November 6, 2013

    I am a driving instructor in South Carolina, USA. Perhaps Saudis would be interested to know that here, women’s auto insurance is much less than men’s, because statistically they have better driving records!

  9. Al Beckley
    November 6, 2013

    Carrie Underwood ain’t got nothin’ on Ms. Shileweah.

  10. Iqbal
    November 7, 2013

    It is so true what women are capable of, even if they do not have an out side job they keep the family together, way stronger than male in morale and what they do and take care of is tremendous. Commonly seen the differences in a family with a female vs without one. It is religiously said that a child becomes orphan when they loose their mother.

  11. ja
    November 7, 2013

    Interesting combination of modern technology (the truck) and nature (having to survive in the desert).

  12. Nasser
    November 9, 2013

    Simply wonderful journey

  13. Sara
    November 15, 2013

    Thanks for this interesting story!I’m Saudi and didn’t know that there are people who still live in the desert..thought they all moved to cities!I really enjoyed reading the comments and I have to say that I loved Om shileweah, she reminds me of my grandmother 🙂

    • Paul Salopek
      November 16, 2013

      Glad to have you trekking along. Om Shileweah made my day.

  14. abo sheilweeh
    November 15, 2013

    Get away from my wife

    November 18, 2013

    “To get to the other side”, I like it! Hello Paul, I’m an elementary school art teacher on the Hopi Indian reservation in Arizona. If we are in your path some years from now, stop by and say hello at Hotevilla Bacavi Community School in Hotevilla, AZ. My students and I just finished a 14 foot by 50 foot broken tile mosaic on the front of the building that is worth checking out. Happy trekking!

    • Paul Salopek
      November 23, 2013

      I plan to come down part of the western Continental Divide. So keep a fire going for me, Karen.

  16. Joseph Seeders
    November 19, 2013

    There are only two types societies in the world, Matriarchal and hidden Matriarchal societies. We pretend men are in charge to keep them in line. It’s only when we forget this that we descend into barbarism.
    ” The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world”.

  17. Jenny
    November 19, 2013

    I really believe that men are not better than women. And woman are not better than men. Men and women compliment each other. And this world will truly be a better place when men and women both respect each other for their differences and not try to be superior to one anther.

  18. Tina
    November 21, 2013

    Paul, you are most certainly an amazing person to undertake this trek. That being said, and the fact we are talking about women, your wife must be a truly awesome person as well! 7 years away from each other, wow! I realize you will see each other here and there, but I am still amazed. Without getting too personal, what does your wife do? Do you have children? Will be be joining you on the actual walking at any time? Loved the image you gave about the pizza place. Thank you! (And your wife)

    • Paul Salopek
      November 23, 2013

      I’ve tried to respect my family’s wishes for privacy on this trek. But you’re right, Tina—without their understanding and patience, I wouldn’t be able to continue.

      • Tina
        November 24, 2013

        Wanted you to know how inspiring you are. Years ago I saved cassettes of my grandmothers oral history of her life. Later I would write down quotes and stories of the many people I would meet, mostly elderly. I never did anything with them, just felt it was important to remember some of what they had lived. Because of you sharing your journey, and through you , sharing the wonderful stories of the people you meet. I am finding the passion I had years ago being rekindled. Thank you. Will be following your journey with much anticipation. And sending as much positive energy as possible to you for a safe journey. Luck!

  19. max stokes
    November 24, 2013

    Will follow your trek, and be interested in both violence and/or peace you encounter along the way…

  20. Daryl Knight
    November 24, 2013

    Just learned of this journey. Looking forward to the next 6 years.

  21. Sandra Drissen
    November 24, 2013

    Thank you and safe journey.

  22. Fawziah Aljohani
    November 26, 2013

    Can’t tell ! I cant believe you want USA to SOS us ?! shame on you ! It is our country and our life..asking a foreign country to interfere in our lives is a betrayal.but anyway, do you still think that usa have any influence in.the region after her honey.moon with iran? gone with the wind any respect or trust in usa if there was any before.

  23. Fawzia Aljohany
    November 26, 2013

    really loved the names (Um shelaiweeh and Ghazal Gezaeyl) it is clear they are fake names but I respect that woman’s pride .she disnt even want to give that snooping stranger a real name..

  24. Susan Suddarth
    November 27, 2013

    I am a NG magazine subscriber interested in following his progress. Fascinating story and adventure!

  25. Joan
    November 27, 2013

    Amazing journey. I have signed on for updates. From Sidney, BC, Vancouver Island, Canada

  26. Mary A. Read
    November 28, 2013

    I admire these capable women in veils-Just ask the Russians. In just a hop over the Persian Gulf from Saudi Arabia’ in Afghanistan- they met these women and it did not take too long for them to give it up and head back to Russia. I have a curiosity: what kind of shoes – not asking brands!-does a earth walker wear?Next to WATER this has to be a prime choosing and careful selection. Yours appear like Merrill Glove walkers. Also want to tell you how much enjoy hearing a sample of the local music as you pass through these cultures.
    Hey Paul, this is fun; I am a straggler but keeping up. Enjoy the sound track with only the sounds of wind and an occasional camel at rest. A splendid job. Onward then-may the wind be at your back.Mary

  27. Anne Shaw
    November 29, 2013

    I am fascinating by your journey and its historical roots. I also loved reading about your journey through Suadi Arbia as a Canadian who lived there in the 80s

  28. Jeff Zenger
    November 30, 2013

    Walk On

  29. Leonard Blauwkamp
    December 2, 2013

    Love your blog

  30. Gina
    December 3, 2013

    Instead of asking is she afraid of you, (creepy asking a woman out in the middle of nowhere that question anyway), ask what has happened in the past that she needs a knife. Now that would be an interesting story.

  31. Thomas Martin
    December 9, 2013

    What a great adventure. I spent a year in Aden in the British Army. On retirement after 22 years I spent a year in industry – I did not fit in with the union type workers. I took a job with British Aerospace on a training team in Saudi Arabia for 13 years. I taught Royal Saudi Cadets, early computerized communications, basically store and forward. Later HP 3000 computer. I enjoyed the week-ends camping under the stars and exploring. Only very rarely did I see any Saudi’s in the desert. By 1970 most had become urban dwellers. Living in towns and cities. The cultural differences between the Saudi and a westerner is a very large and deep gulch. However one has to recognize their right to govern and live as they do. Who are we as westerners to tell them about “DEMOCRACY”. PITHY, I now live in the USA, I am a guest so I would consider it bad manners to tell America what I think of their DEMOCRACY. Keep on trekking, I envy your guts and determination. I trust that nothing untoward happens on your epic journey. You are obviously a man of honesty, integrity and courage. I envy you undertaking this exciting adventure. However at 77 I fear I am too old to attempt anything but a stroll in the garden.
    Very best wishes – I will follow you on Nat Geo.

  32. Christy Costigan
    December 14, 2013

    Hi Paul,greetings from Dublin Ireland am currently reading about your amazing journey in the National Geographic.Best of luck for the remainder of your trip.Will be following with great interest.



  33. Erik Wood
    January 20, 2014

    Hello from Vancouver Island Canada. My barber gave me a copy of N.G. where I discovered your trek. What an amazing modern day adventure that you are experiencing & sharing with the world. I will keep track of your journey & wish you good luck.
    Erik Wood

  34. Darby A. Gray
    April 16, 2014

    National Geographic may be the single greatest hope of a genuine “united nations”.

  35. fig
    February 11, 2015

    This is amazing

  36. Howard Sleeper
    November 10, 2015

    I started reading this story in the last two months. It is as if I am leaving Africa late after Paul and the mini-caravan. While reading “Velled Driving: Billi Cowgirls”, the thought occurred to me that these people were/are the descendants of those who discontinued the long walk out of eden and stayed right there in the Hejaz mountains. I can’t imagine that someone stopped further along the way and came back to Hejaz. They have had to put up with all of the followers (late leavers) who kept streaming through “their” place, however informal, who came after the vanguard. No wonder they are not afraid and carry knives.
    Keep up the excellent story,
    Howard Sleeper

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